Winter Water

Winter Water

Matt Klara | Sunday, 2 December 2018

It’s now December here in MT. Well, everywhere really. But here, that means we’ve gone way past the tipping point between Autumn and winter conditions. Big game hunting season has ended, and the stillwaters are freezing over. We have many rivers that are open to year round fishing, though. So, that is what I’m starting to think about these days.

The real tricks to successful and enjoyable winter fishing for me can be easily summarized into three bullet points:

1: Pick good times to go winter fishing.

2: Find where the trout are, and fish there.

3: Slow down the presentation.

To me, picking good days means going out when the weather is less wintery.  Warmer, sunnier, less windy.  Simple.  Not only am I happier when I’m not freezing my butt and fingers off, but the fish are typically more active when conditions allow for even a slight increase in water temps.  I used to drift nymphs between the spaces in the drifting slush and ice, but now if you catch me doing that it’s probably because the weather report was really wrong.

Slowing down the presentation is another simple one.  Nymphing, dead drift, right near the bottom rules the day.  With streamers, the quick strips and run and gun of summer must be altered to accommodate to colder, less aggressive fish.  A deep, slow strip, smooth steady swing with subtle additions of action, or even a dead drift usually wins in winter.  Dries are certainly not the norm, and quickly searching with dries for eager fish isn’t a winter tactic.  If you see fish rising, by all means, go dry, but otherwise, stick subsurface.

So that just leaves finding where the trout are.  You’ve got your warm gear on.  It’s a nice winter day.  You have made it out to your favorite river. Your rod is rigged with some nice nymphs (or maybe you have a streamer rod and a nymph rod along).  The first thing that many anglers do in this situation is float or walk to their favorite spring-summer-fall honey-hole, and start casting.  The next thing that many anglers do in this situation is wonder why they aren’t catching any fish.  In my experience, the issue isn’t the presentation as much as the fact that the fish just aren’t there.  Fish hang out in different places in the winter.  They hang out in the “Winter Water”.

What the heck does that mean?  Well, each river is a little different in my experience, but, I’ve found that there are some similarities that stretch across the board.  Because most anglers are familiar with where to find fish in summer, AKA “Summer Water”, I’ll refer to that as a point of comparison.

First, note that winter is colder than summer.  Yeah.  I know you are thinking, “Thanks, Master of the Obvious.”   OK fine.  But what does that mean?  The air is colder.  The water is colder.  Sun arrives at a lower angle, for a shorter time each day.  Cold water hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water.  Also, remember that fish are cold blooded, and their energy and metabolic rate is directly tied to water temperature.  Fish are more sluggish in very cold water, and they need to eat less food to maintain themselves.  Water temps also relate to insect activity.  Bug hatches are few and far between.  Food sources may not only be reduced, but they may also change completely from summer. 

So, if the fish are colder, more sluggish, need less food, and the food producing areas may have shifted from where they are in summer, it’s no surprise that the fish will be hanging out in different places than they do in summer.  But where? 

The quick riffles, pockets, and shallows that are highly oxygenated bug factories all summer long may still be producing some bugs, but not nearly as many.   The cold water has the fish sluggish, and not interested in fighting that faster current, given the reduced food availability and metabolic need.  Also, dissolved oxygen is likely not an issue in winter, so the fish can breathe easy about anywhere in the system.  Lastly, at least when still or very slowly moving, the warmest water will actually be on the bottom in the dead of winter, thanks to water/ice’s unique density vs. temperature relationship.  So, from the fish’s perspective, it’s easier and better to stay in water that is DEEPER and SLOWER than preferred in summer.  On some rivers that means 5-10 ft deep or more, and dang near still water.  On other rivers, the available winter water might only be 3 ft deep and moving at a walking speed pace.  As a general tip, I’d say start with the slowest, darkest, deepest spots that you can find that are still fishable and then adjust accordingly until you find fish.

Does that mean riffles and other quicker water are pointless to fish in winter?  No.  Not all of them at least.  I think that there are fish that will happily move into quicker water to feed in response to some sort of environmental conditions, sun warmed water, or a pulse of insect activity like a midge hatch.  But, they probably won’t move a mile just for an hour of feeding.  So, in my own mind, it seems like quicker water that is immediately adjacent to really good winter water is far better than quicker water which is surrounded by only more quick water.

The more you really get to thinking about water temperature, the more you may start exploring your own fisheries in a new way.  Are there springs that run cold in summer but relatively warm in winter?  Is there a dam that releases water from the bottom/middle/top?  Are there other natural or human caused factors at play?  It’s worth some thought and research at the very least.

Lastly, don’t be disheartened if you don’t catch a fish from a really likely looking spot, or a spot that you know is a good winter spot based on prior experience.  The fish don’t need to eat as much to maintain themselves in the cold, so winter feeding windows can be dreadfully short.  Today’s feeding window might be 2 hours from now.  Or maybe you missed it.  Or maybe there isn’t one today.  It pays to fish as many good spots, slowly and thoroughly, that you can in an outing in hopes that your location, presentation, and the fish activity overlap at least a little bit.  How do you ever really figure out if a spot is good in the winter?  Fish it a bunch of times, along with the other likely looking spots, and over time, the pattern will emerge.  The knowledge is there for those who put in the time.

Take care, fish on, and stay warm,


PS - Thanks to my good buddy Brian Chou for today's pic.  Taken last winter while we put these ideas into play.